Head East, Young Man

“What do you do?” In most parts of our fair country, this is the question people ask one another while they’re sniffing each other out. Not here in Austin. Almost without fail the first thing new friends (because we’re all friends here in Austin) ask each other, is, “Where do you live?” I have never lived anywhere where geography was so important. Being adventurous (or geographically dysfunctional, or peripatetic, or restless, or indecisive, take your pick), we’ve tried out quite a few neighborhoods in our not-quite-three-years here. Spicewood, Hemphill Park, West Campus, Harris Park—we’ve finally settled in East Austin. I needed to be closer to the farm, and we wanted to live someplace with easy access to pretty much anywhere (restless?), so East Austin off Caesar Chavez and Chicon seemed like a good fit. A delightfully funky neighborhood, steps away from Lady Bird Lake, with easy access to I35 and Mopac, I could live in the city and still wake up to the sounds of roosters crowing. Perfect, we thought, moved in, and fell in love with the welcoming families on our block, the Friday night music, the Sunday evening hot-rod cruises, and the ice cream carts.

Thomas and I laugh that it’s a lot easier to dig a hole on the east side—now that we’ve crossed I35, our house sits on the rich, dark alluvial soil of the Blackland Prairie, once part of the True or Tall Grass Prairie – habitat to the indigenous Comanches, and prairie-dependent species such as buffalo, antelope, badgers, prairie wolves, prairie dogs, burrowing owls and many others. This rich soil and a close-by hungry market has given birth to a collection of urban farms perhaps unparalleled in any other large urban center. Carol Ann and Larry were the first urban farm pioneers in the neighborhood. They bought the original farmhouse and surrounding farm on Lyons Road that has become Boggy Creek Farm, a cultural institution here in Austin. In fact, I was a Boggy Creek Farm customer long before I ever moved here. My family still teases me about the time I had to cram $125.00 worth of Boggy Creek Farm strawberries into a hotel room refrigerator. Besides the abundant, certified organic vegetables that come from their land, Carol Ann and Larry have nurtured and grown a movement. Whole Foods brought us organic, but Boggy Creek Farm brought us local and alive.  Learning what just-harvested food tastes like, and how it makes us feel, has sprouted thousands of locavores, and many newly-committed local farmers, including the second wave of East Austin farmers. A more-than-generous mentor, Carol Ann and Larry opened their doors and their fields to Stephanie, and Rain Lily was born. When Dorsey Barger, co-owner of the East Side Café, decided she wanted to buy property on the East Side to grow more food for the restaurant, Carol Ann and Larry were there to offer advice and encouragement. The folks at G4 Farms on Springdale have been by for advice too, and we all visit each other’s properties to see what’s growing.

The sense of community and purpose is palpable every time we all get together—on a recent evening, we hosted a visiting author who has written a book about urban farming. Dorsey brought just-harvested baby vegetables with anchovy butter and sea salt, Carol Ann made a salad still quivering with life, and we made a seafood stew made with Rain Lily tomatoes and aromatics. Talk was loud and the wine poured freely. Everyone laughed and compared stories, shared advice, debated agricultural politics, but most importantly, we all ate well.

I would never have imagined that I would find such community in East Austin, much less a movement. The Blackland Prairie Concerned Citizens Association tells us, “The Texas Blackland Prairie is endangered. According to American Farmland Trust, the Texas Blackland Prairie is the 4th most threatened region in the country. America currently loses more than one million acres of farm and ranch land each year to development. Texas loses more land to development than any other state in the country. Information provided by the Texas Cooperative Extension indicates that agribusiness represents a $4.26 billion impact on Travis County. The value generated from producing, processing and marketing food and fiber continues to play a dramatic role and it is important to recognize agribusiness as vital to the continued efficiency and economic growth in Travis County.”

And here we are, laughing, connecting, sharing, encouraging, keeping our fingers crossed, and taking back the prairie, one urban farm at a time.

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